I fell in love with diners somewhere in the Mojave desert back in 1978. On the same day I fell in love with Tecaté beer (in a can, with a shake of salt and squeeze of lime on the rim) at a place called Saint Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo. I’d already fallen in love with Mark, my boyfriend back then.
I’d never been to a diner before, and in fact had never even heard the word “diner.” You see, my Mom was a little bit of snob when it came to any food that she didn’t make from scratch, so we didn’t eat out much, and when we did she usually complained about the food. No doubt, she was an incredibly innovative cook, preparing everything from Greek food to Indian food, and everything in between, always without a recipe or any measuring devices. Many of her recipes were only seen once at the table, and often didn’t have a name. All were equally delicious. In fact, I don’t remember any recipe disasters ever.
Mark saw my skepticism, and the concerned look on my face. He squeezed my knee. “It’s a diner!” he exclaimed in utter delight, sitting up straighter as he leaned over the steering wheel eagerly surveying the building as if he was straining to catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower.
“A diner?” I asked. I’d never heard of a diner. That’s how sheltered I was from ordinary restaurant food.
“Yeah. You’ve never been to a diner?” He looked at me, perplexed. I shook my head, and felt really mystified. “Diner food is great, but this place is the best! Just wait until you taste their biscuits and gravy!” I’d eaten every conceivable kind of food in my life, but “biscuits and gravy?” Eeeewww. That just sounded gross.
It was still quite early in the morning, close to 6 o’clock, and the place was packed. The waitress dashed around serving coffee, carrying plates in her hands and balancing them all the way up her arms. People, mostly men, were talking, laughing and eating with gusto. The din of forks and knives clanking upon plates was nearly as loud as the chatter. And, the way they plunked down their coffee mugs after gulping down generous portions of coffee, I could see why the mugs were made of such heavy ceramic. It was to avoid breakage.
I looked at the menu, feeling squeamishly out of place. I recognized eggs and bacon, and there were pancakes. Oh. So a diner was kind of like Bob’s Big Boy or the Sambo’s chains. I’d just never seen a little diner. I was about to order the pancakes when Mark said to the waitress, “She’ll have the biscuits and gravy.”
“Anything else, honey?” the waitress asked with a big grin, pencil poised and ready to scribble the rest of my order.
“Uh, no. No thank you,” I said softly.
She shook her head in disbelief, “Alright, if you say so.”
Mark said to her, “She’s never been to a diner before, and has never had biscuits and gravy.”
The waitress raised her eyebrows, “Oh, honey, you’re in for a treat!” Mark then proceeded to order biscuits and gravy, eggs over easy, bacon, sausages, sourdough toast, hash browns and a side of pancakes. My eyes grew wide as his order grew bigger. He grinned when he saw my expression, “Hey, it’s not everyday that I get to eat at this place, and I’m telling you, it’s great!”
When the plate of biscuits and gravy was plunked down in front of me, I cringed. It looked like someone had vomited dog food on top of perfectly good biscuits. “Looks disgusting, doesn’t it,” Mark said with a laugh.
“Yeah,” I said as I built up the courage to pick up my fork. What had I gotten myself into?
I cut into the edge of the soft, mile high biscuit, taking with it just a smidge of the sausage gravy. I gulped, and then tentatively raised the fork to my lips. Mark was watching me the whole time, and hadn’t yet touched his own food. I slipped the bite into my mouth, and immediately my spine buckled as the gravy hit my tongue. I audibly sighed. Spicy, salty, comforting and absolutely delicious. The moist biscuit had just a little crispness on the bottom, and a buttery flavor and texture.
“Oh my God,” I exclaimed softly.
“Good, huh?” Mark said, “Bet it’s the best thing you’ve ever eaten.” I had to agree. He then proceeded to place the pieces of bacon on top of the pancakes, then carefully scooped up the over easy eggs and placed them on top. I’d never seen such a thing! Then to my absolutely amazement, he sprinkled everything with salt and pepper, and if that wasn’t strange enough, he drenched everything in maple syrup! He grinned at me, “It’s a pancake sandwich. Open faced, of course. Eat your breakfast before it gets cold.”
The waitress refilled our coffee mugs. Though Mark offered a bite of the pancake sandwich, I was too busy savoring my biscuits and gravy to bother with another taste sensation. I watched as he squirted his hash browns with ketchup, then doused them with Tabasco sauce. He recklessly slathered the sourdough toast with butter and piled strawberry jam on one piece and grape jelly on the other. This was a whole new way of eating that I’d never seen before. He finished his meal in record time, washing everything down with big gulps of coffee, and then caught his breath and slowly sipped his third steaming mug of coffee as he watched me carefully scrape the last bit of sausage gravy off of my plate. I wanted more, but didn’t say a word.
I was very quiet as we drove away. I looked back wistfully, wishing I could eat at “the diner” every day and explore all of the gastronomic delights it had to offer. My head spun with visions of the comforting smile of the heavyset waitress, her curly brown hair tied up with a bright red ribbon, and the truckers and cowboys shoveling mass quantities of food into their mouths, filling their bellies in preparation for the long day of manual labor ahead. We drove on in silence for a very long time and the sun rose over the desert. Mark gently took my hand and nodded toward the horizon. “Look at how beautiful the desert is. We made it here just in time for sunrise.” He almost whispered the words, as if to speak loudly might shatter the delicate landscape. I gasped as the rays of the sun touched the barren surface of the desert and the sand became a swirl of orange, yellow, pink and purple as if it were a canvas brushed with watercolors. I’d never seen anything so beautiful in my life. I felt peaceful and serene. Mark’s blue eyes danced and sparkled in the morning light, and he squeezed my hand firmly, signaling his love for me.
When Mark told me that we were going to a festival at a monastery, I was very wary. I anticipated a stoic, drab environment, with deadpan monks walking at a snail’s pace, heads bowed and serious. I couldn’t fathom that a festival at a monastery would be at all festive. I was prepared to spend a day in dreaded silence, on my best behavior, bored out of my mind.
“There it is!” Mark exclaimed as Saint Andrew’s Abbey came into full view. He was as excited as a child on Christmas. Before I knew it, he’d parked the car and hopped out, beckoning me to follow as he ran up to one of the monks. They threw their arms around each other in a long and loving embrace, and then Mark stepped back, bouncing from one foot to the other asking, “So, what can we do to help?”
The monastery was bustling with activity as tables were set up, and temporary structures were erected. Monks rushed from place to place, the hoods from their vestments flapping in the breeze that they created as they zipped along performing their various tasks.
Our job was to get ice for the beer, and fill massive barrels to chill the beer for sale, just 25 cents per can. It was Tecate beer, something I’d never seen before. “This stuff is really good,” Mark said with a mischievous grin and a twinkle in his eye as he held up a can for me to see. I was underage, but not unfamiliar with the taste of beer and wine, as it was something that flowed freely in the Bacon household, and I’d had many a sip with my parents’ full permission. I felt sad that I likely would not be able to taste the Tecate that day, but was pleased enough just to be spending the day with Mark. We set the barrels by tables, and then commenced to setting rows of salt shakers and bowls of limes on the tables. I was baffled. “What’s the salt and lime for?” I asked in wonder.
“For the beer!” Mark laughed, popping open a can. “You squeeze a little lime on the rim like this,” he said, carefully squeezing drops of lime juice onto the rim by the spout. Then he sprinkled a little salt on top of the lime juice and handed the can to me, “Here. Try it!”
I looked around nervously. “Are you sure this is okay?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, “No one will know. They’re all too busy getting ready for the festival. And besides, volunteers get free food and drink.”
I put my mouth to the spout, and took a deep swig of the beer mingled with the lime and salt. It wasn’t even 8am, but somehow it felt absolutely right to be drinking beer at a monastery at that very moment. It was a little bit of heaven on earth; the flavor was delicious. I handed the can to him, as that one sip was plenty for me. He promptly squeezed more lime on the rim and sprinkled it with salt and handed it back to me. “That’s yours,” he said, and popped a can for himself. It was going to be a very interesting day.
Before all of the finishing touches were put on the displays and vendor stations, the festival was in full swing, and it was anything but quiet and boring. Mark and I kept busy refilling the barrels with ice and helping with other assorted tasks as needed by the monks. The monks were all so very personable, and they smiled and laughed, and showed great pride and joy in their event.
“Just wait until we go four-wheeling later on,” Mark said to me. “Four-wheeling,” like “diner,” was yet another new term to me. The Tecate continued to flow, but I never got drunk, just nicely relaxed as the hot afternoon desert sun seemed to quickly burn off any effects of the alcohol.
We hopped into a four wheel drive vehicle and headed out into an area of long criss-crossed roads in the desert, off the beaten path. Other vehicles were there, and it seemed as if a dangerous game of chicken was taking place as vehicles narrowly missed each other at intersections. There was what to me seemed to be reckless driving going on, but Mark assured me that this was what off-road four wheel driving was all about. I gripped the seat hard and I was tossed back and forth and up and down as we flew across the desert landscape.
Suddenly, a strange and intense look came over Mark’s face. He slowed down and turned the vehicle back towards the monastery. “This isn’t right,” he said, “We shouldn’t be doing this. Let me show you something magical.”
We didn’t go back to the monastery, but instead he stopped somewhere in the desert where others were gathered quietly in the mid-afternoon sun. They were waiting for the sunset. Some were talking quietly amongst themselves, and others lay down to catch the last rays. Mark spread a blanket on the desert sand.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, beckoning me to sit down as he raced on foot to the monastery. He returned with two cans of beer, a lime and a salt shaker, and set them aside. Lay down, he said, as he laid on his back with his face to the sun. I laid beside him, wondering what was next. “Now, breathe in slowly, and exhale completely.” I did as he suggested. “Continue to breathe deeply.” We lay like that for a few minutes more.
Finally, curiosity got the best of me, “So, what are we doing this for?” I asked.
“We're connecting with the universe; with the White Light,” he said softly, “Don’t you feel it?”
“White Light?” I questioned.
“White Light,” he said, seeming amazed that I had no idea what he was referring to. “White Light for healing. It comes from the sun.”
When I didn’t respond, he said, “Imagine that there is a big ray of white light coming from the sun into your heart, and feel it filling up your being. Imagine your body filling with white light, and the light is cleansing you of any toxic energy. Your body is being cleansed and healed, and the white light fills you so much that it radiates from your skin.”
I lay in wonder as I watched a big ray of white light pour into my heart and fill my being. I felt at one with everything there in the desert silence.
“Do you feel your guides?” he whispered.
“Yes! Spirit guides! We all have them. Mine is Archangel Michael. He’s here. Ask for him.”
Not really understanding, I surrendered to his words and asked in my heart for my guides to show themselves, and soon felt a benevolent presence envelop me that was as big and wide as the desert landscape. I was safe and loved, and I never wanted the feeling to end.
We lay like that for the next two hours in the waning sun, and then he clasped my hand in his, “Look, Summer,” he raised up and helped me come to a full sitting position. The sun was setting, and though not as spectacular as the sunrise had been, the serene orange and yellow rays slowly waved goodbye to us. Mark popped the two cans of beer, and we watched and drank in silence, the beer now warm enough to take the chill out of the quickly cooling desert night air.
My relationship with Mark did not last much longer after that day, but in our few short months together he was a great teacher to me. One day he complimented me about how beautiful I was, and I shook my head shyly and said, “No I’m not.” He laughed and said, “Summy, one day I’d just like to see you look me in the eye, bat your eyelashes and say ‘thank you’ when I compliment you.” In that moment I realized that not acknowledging his compliments was actually rather unkind and unloving of me. I never forgot that lesson about receiving, and made a point of thanking anyone who ever complimented me ever since. It was a tremendous boost to my self esteem as well, because it was not only about acknowledging the person’s compliment, it was about acknowledging myself.
I admittedly regret that I was the one to break up with Mark. I was just too young and insecure to know how to be in a relationship. He was respectful of me in every way, never overstepping any boundaries that I might have set forth, but I knew he was very serious about me, and he wanted more. When I broke up with him, I broke his heart.
Ten years later I saw him at my class reunion. It was 1988. I believe Mark was with his wife, and he sat at a table looking downtrodden and a far cry from that exuberant young man who had taken me on an adventure in the desert and taught me so much about Spirit.
I said, “Hi Mark,” and he looked at me with angry eyes that then turned very sad. He looked away and didn’t say a word. I could see that the breakup had caused him pain that had never left him.
Six years later I was sitting in my parents’ house in Sedona, AZ, and we were reminiscing about our life in Los Angeles, and the people we knew. My Mom broke into the conversation at some point and said matter-of-factly, “Yes! I think that happened after Mark died.”
I became rigid. “Mark? The Mark that I dated as a teenager? He died?”
“Yes, Summy,” Mom said, “Didn’t you know? Don’t you remember? He had cancer.”
I didn’t know. He never told me. And, no one had told me that he died. I was whisked back to memories of Valyermo, diners, Tecate beer, four wheel driving, and White Light at sunset. So that’s why he was asking for healing from the sun.
I left the room and cried, and spoke to Mark from my heart. I apologized for my lack of awareness of how deep his love was for me, and my insensitivity in the way I’d broken up with him. I told him that I was young, naive and didn’t know how to proceed. I closed my eyes, and tasted the biscuits and gravy, and saw his beautiful blue eyes twinkling in the light of the sunrise. I felt cool Tecate, salt and lime run down my throat. I felt the warmth and love of my spirit guides wrapping me up as white light filled my body. And I felt the touch of his hand clasping mine.
“Remember how I told you we all have spirit guides, Summer?” I heard him say, as his presence filled the room.
“Yes, Mark. Thank you so much for that,” I said softly as tears slowly rolled down my face once again.
The room became warm, and his presence larger even still, and I felt his love and arms enfold me.
“I’m here. I’m with you always. I will always be your guide forevermore.”
We came full circle, Mark and I. We were never lovers, but we share a bond of love that to this day transcends time and space. He taught me about spirit guides, and then he became one of mine.
And, to this day, whenever I eat biscuits and gravy (I’ve been to many a diner since that day) I know that Mark is beside me, smiling.